The world is being attentive to Saskatoon — now we have to embrace what makes the town distinctive

I have found myself reflecting lately on the Saskatchewan of my youth.

Like many Saskatchewanians, I grew up in a rural part of the province on a farm beside a small town. In those days, the focus of many young people was outside our province — places where friends and family had moved and opportunity abounded.

Our province felt like a place that you called home by default and this was reflected in the way people outside Saskatchewan interacted with us. There were turned up noses, usually accompanied with the proverbial head pat for the quaint and simple prairie folk. Many of us moved away for periods of time and probably came back; we were a generation of apologetic Saskatchewanians.

Fast forward two decades and how that perspective changes.

Saskatchewan (and particularly Saskatoon) is now an interprovincial and international travel destination.

Publications such as the New York Times and Vanity Fair shine their spotlights on our city.

Wanuskewin Heritage Park is a proposed UNESCO world heritage site and, through its showcase of Northern Plains Indigenous Cultures, is an incredible reminder of the millennia of people that predate the 19th Century colonization of the West.

The Flaming Lips perform in Saskatoon at the Saskatchewan Jazz Fest. (Karin Yeske/CBC)

Our food and beverage scene consistently punches above its weight in terms of quality and creativity and, as this summer winds down, we have played host to legendary performances such as the Flaming Lips and Kamasi Washington (Saskatchewan Jazz Festival), international tournaments for soon- to-be Olympic sports (FIBA 3×3 basketball) and a world-class Picasso installation in a world-class art gallery (Remai Art Gallery).

All of this before one has the chance to mention our dynamic tech companies and plant-processing facilities that attract international attention, investment and acclaim.

If this isn’t a Saskatchewan tipping point, at the very least it feels like our “swagger moment.”

This shift in outside perception has often made me wonder — why are people now paying attention to us? Is what we are doing truly unique?

Part of the answer to these questions has as much to do with how our broader society organizes itself as it does with what we are producing here. We are a hyper-connected society yearning for authentic connection.

Yes, the sorts of experiences and products we are producing — whether in a glass, on a table or in a smartphone app — approach greatness at a global standard, but I think our most appealing product is how we relate to one another in business and community.

We remain a province with roots in the Great Depression and are continually reminded through harsh, unforgiving winters that we need one another for survival. At our best, this is reflected in a collaborative spirit that includes all peoples and creates something beyond the sum of our parts.

How to embrace our ‘swagger moment’

This swagger moment is ours to embrace. Over the years, we have often pointed to “wide open spaces” and a “land of living skies,” justifiably paying homage to the natural beauty that is Saskatchewan to entice visitors.

However, people are now coming to Treaty 6 territory and the homeland of the Mé​tis to see us, to experience how we live and to learn from how we relate to one another.

School children explore the teepee village at Wanuskewin Heritage Park. (Don Somers/CBC)

With that comes a tremendous opportunity to provide an experience that pushes the boundaries of excellence and authentically represents who we are as a province.

One sees that in our craft alcohol sector, of which I am most directly familiar — where our participants are being recognized nationally and internationally for their award-winning products, while at the same time adding value to our bounty in the bread basket of the world and serving our great craft beer, spirits and wine to local growers.

This is true farm-to-table at a world class standard.

There is also a tremendous responsibility to ensure that those experiences are as easy for visitors as possible, by providing the necessary services, infrastructure and regulation that allows our best to shine in a smart, forward-thinking and accessible way.

As opportunity blooms, the rules that necessarily follow must be reasonable, informed by industry and designed to foster rather than inhibit further economic growth, so that entering members of our community can find ways to fill in the cracks and accent existing and upcoming attractions.

Photo of downtown Saskatoon featuring the Delta Bessborough Hotel. (Trevor Bothorel/CBC)

The global ride-sharing initiative that is at our doorstep is a great example of such potential enterprise.

It also underscores the need to be a “good neighbor” among all fellow Saskatchewanians. It is what makes us unique and should be embraced.

Individually, we have always been entrepreneurial people — to live on the Prairies, one has always needed to be creative, smart and risk-tolerant but we are truly at our best when we work together.

Let’s use our collaborative spirit to keep the momentum behind this newfound proud and unapologetic Saskatchewan attitude.

This column is part of CBC’s Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor’s blog and our FAQ.

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